David Duchovny: From Californication to the Summer of Love

Published April 10, 2014

ABOVE: DAVID DUCHOVNY IN CALIFORNICATION. PHOTO COURTESY OF  JORDAN ALTHAUS/SHOWTIME.

Hank Moody, the charismatically debauched novelist played by David Duchovny on Showtime’s long-running series, Californication, has a habit of letting people down and a knack for charming his way back into their good graces. He’s been a recurring disappointment to his on-again/off-again love, Karen (Natascha McElhone), and their teenage daughter, Becca (Madeleine Martin), but his boyish humor and lost-cause vulnerability have won him repeated chances at redemption. Although Hank and Karen never married, he’s betrayed her in countless ways, once having sex with a girl who turned out to be her stepdaughter, which led to statutory rape charges and three years of probation. On top of that, he’s punched a police officer, roughed up Becca’s boyfriends, slept with one of his college students, smuggled drugs into a treatment center, overdosed on sleeping pills, and nearly drowned in a swimming pool while drunk.

Throughout, Duchovny and writer/creator Tom Kapinos have made Hank’s follies laughable and his tragedies human. After burning bridges in publishing, academia, and Hollywood, all to the dismay of his faithful agent, Charlie (Evan Handler), Hank still has a chance to make things right with those who love him as the seventh and final season of Californication gets underway on Sunday night, with an episode directed by Duchovny.

Now that work on Californication is completed, the former X-Files star is looking toward his next television series, the NBC drama, Aquarius, as well as recording his first album as a singer/songwriter.

CHRIS TINKHAM: Do you recall what kind of expectations you had for Californication and your character, Hank, when the show started?

DAVID DUCHOVNY: I was singularly focused on making a comedy. I hadn’t really had that chance up until that point, in a way that I thought I could do well. I got the script, and I thought, “This is very articulate, in a way that I think I can do.” It also had some slapstick that I like. It had a lot of different stuff going on. There was family comedy in it. To me, it was about trying to make a comedy that doesn’t spin out and become unrealistic. Those are the kind that I’m attracted to, movies from the ’70s like Shampoo or Harold and Maude.

TINKHAM: Time after time, Hank fails people, especially those who love him the most. What’s at the root of that?

DUCHOVNY: I think he’s a little too attached to his own suffering, like artists can be. They don’t think that they can create unless they’re miserable. If he does change at all, as he gets to a point where these kinds of shenanigans become more and more ridiculous and less justifiable for a guy his age, I think he starts to realize that maybe he can actually create in a stable environment. He’s got this self-destructive attachment to the truth, as he sees it. He just won’t say or do anything that doesn’t feel truthful to him, which is a fun character to play, but in life we have to make more sacrifices and compromises. I think that’s what makes him fun to watch and be around but makes his own life very difficult.

TINKHAM: Has there been much discussion through the years about the content of Hank’s books? Do you have a clear idea of what they’re about?

DUCHOVNY: No. I would imagine they’re something like the show: comedies of manners and tragedies of bad choices; books that have crazy plots and memorable characters, I would think. I always thought maybe something like Jonathan Franzen. Obviously, Rick Moody was somebody in Tom’s mind. Douglas Coupland maybe. For me, Warren Zevon was kind of a touchstone, but he’s not a novelist. He’s a songwriter, but he writes about L.A. types.  Bukowski would be another one. Take your pick, any of those guys.

TINKHAM: What books and authors have you enjoyed recently?

DUCHOVNY: Today I’m reading Michael Lewis’ new book [Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt] on yet another financial cheating scandal, which is infuriating. I’ve found, as I’ve gotten older, I read a lot of nonfiction. I just read The Future of Mind by Michio Kaku.    

TINKHAM: You usually direct an episode per season, sometimes the first episode. That’s the case again this season. Is directing something that you’d like to continue doing outside of the show?

DUCHOVNY: Oh yeah, I love directing. I directed a few X-Files, I directed a movie about seven or eight years ago, and I hope to do more. To direct a first episode of the season usually meant establishing our new characters, and that was always a lot of fun because these were actors and characters that were going to be very important to the show for the year and maybe beyond. And I would get to be there at the creation of it. Having been with the show for so long, I was able to walk the actors through what we’re doing and the kind of tone that we like to strike. 

TINKHAM: You just referred to House of D, the feature film that you wrote and directed. Would you like to direct your own screenplay again?

DUCHOVNY: I would. House of D didn’t make any money, so nobody’s banging down my door for me to do another one, but so what? That’s not going to stop me. [laughs]

TINKHAM: Last year, you celebrated the 20th anniversary of The X-Files. What was the Comic-Con experience like for you?

DUCHOVNY: That was cool. We did the San Diego one, and that was fun because Chris [Carter, creator of The X-Files] was there, and a bunch of the writers were there: Vince Gilligan and Howard Gordon. I did one in New York with Gillian. It’s easy to make fun of fandom, but when you’re sitting on the other side, 20 years out of doing a show, and these people are still interested and want to talk about it, it crosses over into me being really touched. I’m grateful and thankful. It started in a little room in Vancouver, and none of us knew what we were doing, and here we are 20 years later, and we’re still talking to people who are interested in it, and I think, “Wow, life is strange and wonderful in some areas.”

TINKHAM: Does your daughter have a favorite work that you’ve done?

DUCHOVNY: She was too young for The X-Files. She was born in 1999, and Californication is not the type of show that I would allow my 14-year-old to watch. Having said that, I don’t know what she’s doing on her computer, so she may have watched Californication. She thought Zoolander was funny. I did show her a little clip of Californication where I have a scene with Ed Westwick. She was like, “Oh my God, you worked with Ed Westwick.” [laughs]  I told her that Zac Efron came to visit set. She hated me for not calling her. So it’s less the work that she likes and more the people that I get to meet, or that she would get to meet. Although, she said it would be really cool for me to do more X-Files. She has this idea that it would be a like a reunion for me and fun.

TINKHAM: I wanted to ask about one of your earliest roles, in Henry Jaglom’s New Year’s Day.

DUCHOVNY: Yeah, that is my first role.

TINKHAM: How did that come about?

DUCHOVNY: Through Maggie Jakobson Wheeler. She’s one of the three female leads of that movie. I had dated Maggie a couple of years earlier, and through Maggie I met Henry. Maggie was like the first actor that I knew, and I had just started to think about acting when we met. I was in graduate school at the time, and it wasn’t for acting. She said to Henry, “Why don’t you let David do something?” So Henry did, and I’m grateful to Henry and to Maggie for that. I had no clue what I was doing, but I was able to get an agent from that, and that was instrumental in me starting to get work.  

TINKHAM: You just said that was your first role. Was that even before Working Girl?

DUCHOVNY: I don’t consider that a role. [laughs] I was kind of hired as an extra with the dangling carrot of, “But you’ll get to improvise, and Mike Nichols is going to love you.” And, of course, I don’t even think that I met Mike Nichols. But, at that point, any kind of experience on set was valuable. So, it was just going to work and meeting somebody like Joan Cusack, who’s such a terrific actress, and I’ll always remember how nice she was to me as basically an extra. If young actors ask me things, I always tell them to get on set and watch how it’s done. If you can, watch the people that you like, how they work.

TINKHAM: What can you tell me about Aquarius?

DUCHOVNY: I just know the pilot. I’m playing a cop in the late ’60s; Summer of Love, Los Angeles, rock-‘n’-roll, and also Charlie Manson. It’s kind of where flower power turned into something darker, where the drug experience of opening your mind turned into ruining people’s lives. It’s going to be about America moving from the ’50s to the ’60s to the ’70s through a cop’s eyes.      

TINKHAM: Do you have any memories of that period from when you were a kid?

DUCHOVNY: I don’t remember it in real time, but in the early ’70s I was certainly aware of who Manson was and scared like everybody else, the way he was offered up to us as this monster. When I was really young, I remember being into crime books, crimes of the ’20s, ’30s—every decade had its own specialized form of crime—Leopold and Loeb, In Cold Blood and all that stuff. I wasn’t obsessed with it, but I was interested.

TINKHAM: You have an album of music coming out soon?

DUCHOVNY: I haven’t recorded it yet, but yeah, we’re about to. It’ll be on ThinkSay Records, which is a small label, and I hope people like it. It’s a new thing for me, and it’s exciting. It feels kind of pure to me because I don’t have to make money at it. It’s something that I’m doing out of pure exploration and love.

TINKHAM: You mentioned Warren Zevon earlier. Is he an influence?

DUCHOVNY: Probably lyrically. I’m not a great musician, and I’m not a longtime player. I’m very new to writing songs. I always thought that I’d write words, but I never thought that I’d write songs. Zevon is a lyricist that I admire immensely. Dylan obviously. Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, who writes more obtuse lyrics. I think Sting is a really good lyricist. Paul Simon. Aimee Mann. I don’t know who I think I’m like, but those are people that I like. 

TINKHAM: Do you have plans to play out more?

DUCHOVNY: I do. It’s something that I’m working toward. I need great players around me. It’s just a matter of me getting comfortable going out there. I’m never going to be great; I started too late. But I can get better.

SEASON SEVEN OF CALIFORNICATION BEGINS THIS SUNDAY, APRIL 13, ON SHOWTIME.